As the world economy continues to reduce cultural and economic boundaries, it has become increasingly difficult to gain a complete and standard definition of a global company's products and customers. This challenge is especially true for companies with international manufacturing and distribution responsibilities.

A typical scenario might relate to product identification or SKU numbers. For instance, is the SKU number for widget 1 the same in countries A and B? If not, how can they be correlated so that both SKUs represent widget 1? Also, do multiple countries uniquely identify the same customer in a consistent manner? Although efforts are being made to enforce worldwide standards, it is often the case that each country or region has its "own way of doing things."

Many potential solutions are available that attempt to standardize multiple definitions of common entities. Each, of course, has its own associated cost and level of effort. The purpose of this column is to provide insight into a real-world solution that leveraged both data warehousing principles and Web technology to solve an international reporting dilemma for a large computer manufacturing company. The cases cited are specific to components or products; however, the solutions offered are readily transferable to customer information.

In an effort to establish common operating platforms and recognize economies of scale, numerous companies that purchased sizable volumes of computers from the manufacturer established "standard configuration" contracts. These agreements represented the approved systems to be procured for their respective employees. For instance, a given enterprise might establish two configurations: a robust system for engineering as well as research and development and a standard system for general office automation activities such as e-mail, word processing, etc. These customers increasingly demanded sophisticated order compliance reporting to identify how many of their orders varied from their established configurations.

Tracking computer specifications for large customers scattered across the globe was a difficult undertaking due to component SKU numbers that were often specific to the country in which they were manufactured or purchased. For example, a 17-inch monitor in the United States was identified differently than a 17-inch monitor in France, though both are the same component. Additionally, the dozens of specifications in a single contract often changed on a monthly basis.

The PC manufacturing company had already developed an enterprise-wide data warehouse that captured accurate and timely customer order information. This single source of global orders undoubtedly represented the optimal source to obtain system procurement details. However, global definitions of the established customer configurations were not electronically available, and there was no single "master component" table that correlated like parts for country-specific translations.

Our solution was to implement a Web application that could be utilized by existing global data stewards to interpret the definitions of a system's components into local SKUs. To ensure proper integration with the enterprise data warehouse, the standard customer configuration application populates tables that reside within the warehouse database and conform to established standards and conventions. This enables customer orders to be compared to the approved component bundles based on a designated time frame.

The process begins with the custodian of each customer's contracts creating a standard configuration in the system. Appropriate data stewards are then made aware of the new configuration via e-mail or telephone and must translate the components into local identification numbers. The interpretation is facilitated using a point-and-click interface that contains an ascending pick list of available native SKUs and their descriptions.

The product of this cascading procedure is a global definition of a standard system configuration unique to a particular customer that is manageable due to the equitable sharing of the global maintenance burden.

By offering contract versus order variance reporting, the company was able to provide a unique value-added service to its customers, particularly those with larger accounts. The new service created a significant advantage in an extremely competitive market. In addition, sales managers used the new system, specifically variance reporting, to obtain up-to- date and detailed information on up-sell opportunities.

Although the Internet and corporate intranets are more commonly recognized as means of distributing information, the solution illustrated depicts the extremely beneficial integration of data warehousing principles and Web technology as a source of critical data. The underlying Web principles of "thin" clients and "build once, deploy anywhere" make browser-enabled applications cost- effective and quick to implement. Coupled with an optimized, query-only data warehouse environment, the resulting synergy solved a global reporting dilemma by providing immediate business value.

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